Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam

Adopt a Cacao Tree

In 2015, cacao beans discovered on wild trees within the BFREE Privately Protected Area were submitted for genetic testing to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). The results determined that this could be the original chocolate tree, 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by the ancient Mayan Civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. The beans were given the designation of “heirloom fine flavor” by HCP, only the 11th chocolate in the world to receive such an honor. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, they have generously been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with the development of our work to propagate heirloom fine flavor cacao.

Become a Champion of Heirloom Cacao Farmers

We are excited to share that you can Adopt a BFREE Cacao Tree through HCP’s adoption program to champion heirloom farmers and families around the world. Adoptions are either a one-time payment of $180 US (or 12 monthly payments of $15 US).  For each adoption, you will receive a digital personalized adoption certificate, an Information card including the farm overview, location, and photo of your adopted cacao tree, and three (3) bars of fine chocolate made from the Heirloom Cacao farm where your adopted tree lives.  

Adopt a tree from BFREE by selecting “HCP #11, BFREE Demonstration Cacao Farm, Belize” at the link below!


The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund

HCP was established in 2012 with the mission to “identify and preserve fine flavor “heirloom” cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities.” Launched in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, HCP was formed in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of high-quality, flavorful cacao. Recognizing these endangered cacao trees are the foundation for not only delicious chocolate but also the livelihood of many farmers and farming communities, the HCP is the first initiative to identify and map the world of high-quality, fine flavor cacao and certify growers of these endangered trees.  

Learn more about BFREE’s designation and view a short documentary about our heirloom cacao: HCP #11 – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND

BFREE Fellows Participate in Ranger Weekend

BFREE’s Science and Education Fellowship program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined and a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources. Each Fellows are assigned one of three focal areas based on their interest and experience, Wildlife conservation – Hicatee Conservation, Sustainable Agriculture – Cacao Agroforestry or Protected Areas.


Lenardo Ash (Sustainable Agriculture/Cacao Agroforestry) and Jonathan Dubon (Wildlife Conservation/Hicatee Conservation) are BFREE’s current fellows and have been learning a lot in their focal area. They also have the opportunity to take place in unique professional development opportunities during their two years. This may include trainings, conference attendance, presenting information to groups, and various field experiences.


With strict restrictions due to the pandemic, there were few opportunities for Fellows to travel during 2020. We decided to start the new year off in 2021 by creating training opportunities right here at BFREE. Lenardo and Jonathan joined BFREE Park Rangers, Sipriano Canti and Apolonio Pop for a ranger training weekend. Friday afternoon, the team hiked to their camp spot about two miles from the main facilities. They set up camp and then immediately went to deploy camera traps in the area. The weekend was spent exploring the properties’ many trails while monitoring camera traps and searching for tracks and other signs of wildlife along the way.


The Fellows learned the basics of surviving in the jungle with skills like building a fire and locating water vines. Canti described traditional uses of plants and trees found along the way. The team also updated and posted Private Property signs throughout the area. They explored creeks and lagoons in the area while discovering the many types of habitat that exist within the BFREE property.

BFREE Fellow, Jonathan Dubon during the Ranger Weekend in January 2021.

Some highlights for Jonathan were visiting a pretty lagoon where they saw an Agami Heron. Canti named it “Live Lagoon” because of the little spring that supplies the lagoon with fresh water. Jonathan was also excited to capture an image of a male Tapir on one of the camera traps they set. Volunteers and interns have always loved Ranger Weekends at BFREE, and we are excited to extend this opportunity to BFREE Fellows for the coming years!


Pigeon Pea’s Role in a Cacao Agroforest

While on a hike, Sipriano Canti noticed a Pigeon Pea tree covered with dried seed pods. He, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett collected many of the pods. Soon after, Mark Canti and Lenardo Ash removed seeds from the dried pods and placed them in bags filled with soil. The bags will be placed in the plant nursery where seeds will become sapling trees. Eventually, saplings will be moved to the cacao agroforestry project to provide shade for cacao trees.

About Pigeon Pea

Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), is one of many tree species of shade tree that has been planted at BFREE. This is a legume that can be used as a food crop (dried peas, flour, or green vegetable peas) and a forage or cover crop. Pigeon pea is an important crop for green manure. Green manure is created by leaving uprooted or sown crop parts to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch and soil amendment. The woody stems of pigeon peas can also be used as firewood, fencing and thatch.

Pigeon pea will provide shade for young cacao trees. As the cacao trees grow and require more space, the Pigeon peas will will be removed and only cacao trees and permanent shade trees will remain. For example, Belizean hardwoods like Barbajalote and Mahogany will continue to provide shade over the long-term.

About Cacao Agroforestry

Agroforestry practices like these can make agriculture permanently sustainable on a site and can play a critical role in biodiversity conservation. By integrating cacao trees with other short and long-lived trees, we lengthen the time that crops can be grown on a given piece of land. At BFREE, we continue to explore cacao-based agroforestry as a method for restoring rainforest habitat.

Want to learn more?

Check out: Integrating Landscapes: Agroforestry for Biodiversity Conservation and Food Sovereignty.

Edited by Florencia Montagnini is Volume 12 of the Advances in Agroforestry Series produced by Springer Publishing.

BFREE Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti, holds Pigeon Pea seeds and a pod in his hands.

Ranger Training at BFREE

The new year started off on the right foot with a workshop for BFREE park rangers in Basic Navigation
Skills. Dr. Rob Klinger, BFREE Board Member and Ecologist, spent a morning teaching concepts and
methods associated with navigation using compasses. Because BFREE park rangers are required to
patrol all areas within the 1,153 acre privately protected area, this training is essential for their
confidence in navigating the property with authority. Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, and Pedro Teul made
up the team of rangers who participated in the day-long workshop.

Rob Klinger and Marcos Kuk using a compass in the BFREE Classroom.


After completing the morning’s lessons and testing their abilities, Rob moved the team into the field
where they were able to immediately put their knowledge into action. The rangers joined biology
students from Kutztown University in the 100-meter square cacao grid where they verified the accuracy
of coordinates for the small mammal community study before students placed each trap. This attention
to accurate positioning ensures the grid of 100 flagged points don’t shift with the use by each class
which in turn helps guarantee that the data collected is as consistent as possible over time.


The BFREE park rangers benefited greatly from the workshop and from the efforts of Dr. Klinger. We, at
BFREE, would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Klinger for offering this important and timely training.

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

The Bladen Review 2018

The fifth edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2018 magazine include: a quick look back at the year, updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry and the Hicatee turtle, and stories from new staff. Also, learn more about the unique eco-tour opportunities scheduled for 2019. 

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2018.

Stakeholders Discuss the Future of the Cacao Industry in Belize

Participants gather in a circle for an open discussion during the Forum in San Pedro Columbia.

On  20th July 2017, the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) along with Ya’axché Conservation Trust hosted the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum, entitled “The Future of the Cacao industry in Belize,” at the Church of the Nazarene Medical and Education Center in the historic village of San Pedro Columbia, Toledo District.

The Forum brought together nearly 50 participants representing the NGO community, cacao farmers, community leaders, and government representatives in what proved to be an extremely positive event.

Located near the Bladen Nature Reserve in Toledo, BFREE has been hosting and sponsoring workshops, symposiums, and forums to promote the conservation and maintenance of Belize’s rich biodiversity, its tropical forests, watersheds and abundant wildlife for the last 25 years. This forum took shape in response to our current research and work, which focuses on using cacao-based agroforestry as a way to expand the edges of rainforests and protect the wildlife who inhabit the area.

The Forum had two primary goals; bring together a group of stakeholders in order to share information, discuss challenges and explore opportunities for collaboration and compile information regarding the cacao industry in Belize for inclusion in a regional cacao website, CocoaNext, which will be launched later this year by the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

Forum goals were achieved as information was shared and opportunities for collaboration were considered. The group represented an exceptional diversity of experts with a wide breadth of knowledge and experience representing in Belize’s cacao industry making for focused and informative discussions throughout the day.

With the success of the Forum behind us, participants are already looking forward to the future. The shared desire resonated – that Belize and, particularly Toledo, will continue to become an important player in the local, regional and world Cacao Market and that this growing industry will benefit local farmers, local businesses, Belize’s economy, and most importantly future generations.

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin welcomes the participants of the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum on Thursday, July 20, 2017.

The Forum speakers included:

  • •  Ms. Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre, at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Ms. Sankar provided fantastic overview and history of the Cocoa Research Centre as well as need and purpose for the regional cacao website that will be launched later this year.
  • •  Mr. Wilber Sabido, Chief Forest Officer of the Belize Forest Department. Mr. Sabido spoke of the Forest Department’s position on cacao and agroforestry.
  • •  Mr. Densford Mangar, Ministry of Agriculture Toledo Extension officer. Mr. Mangar presented a national perspective of cacao in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Pablo Mes, Program Coordinator for Maya Leaders Alliance. Mr. Mes described traditional Maya lands rights and land use in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Johnson Ical from Trio Village and Mr. Martin Chiquin from Indian Creek Village both provided the group with an overview of a small farmer’s viewpoint.
  • •  Mr. Gustavo Requena, Community Outreach and Livelihoods Director of Ya’axché Conservation Trust. Mr. Requena described how agroforestry bridges livelihoods as well as on protected area management and adaptation to climate change.
  • •  Mr. Jacob Marlin, Executive Director of BFREE. Mr. Marlin presented how cacao agroforestry may conserve and restore biodiversity.

Hyla and Jacob Marlin along with Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre pose for a photo before the Forum in BFREE’s cacao nursery.

BFREE would like to thank each of the speakers and the participants for their dedication to a healthy and sustainable future for cacao in Belize. Special thanks also to BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, BFREE Operations Manager and Cacao Demonstration Farm Manager, Elmer Tzalam and BFREE Board Member, Gentry Mander who helped make the event a success.

Funding for the Forum was provided by Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education, Ya’axché Conservation Trust, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

If you would like to know more about the Forum, would like to be involved or have any questions, please contact us at: contact@bfreebz.org

 

 

Making Chocolate at BFREE

cacao in the rainforest

Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, introduces students to how cacao grows in the rainforest. Photo by Graham Byers.

The 2017 field season is well underway! In late January, Vermont Commons High School returned to BFREE to participate in a field course. The group explored the rainforest, participated in homestays with Maya families in Golden Stream Village and traversed the coastal town of Placencia.

A highlight of the trip was making chocolate from scratch at the BFREE Field Station. The journey began with a tour of the cacao demonstration farm led by Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam. There students harvested ripe pods and, after cracking them open, were able to taste the sweet pulp that surrounds a cacao bean before biting into the dark chocolate bean.

removing a cacao pod from the tree

Student carefully removes a pod from a cacao tree. Photo by Graham Byers.

The group followed beans from the tree, through the fermentation process, to sun-drying, then peeling, pan roasting, and grinding until it was time to pour the liquid chocolate into molds and – finally – eat!

fermentation of cacao

Students remove beans from fermenting boxes. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

hand-making chocolate

BFREE Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle, helps a student fill the chocolate molds. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

roasting cacao beans

Students roast the cacao beans in cast iron skillets. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

 

Can Chocolate Save the Rainforest?

cacao podCan chocolate save the rainforest? BFREE has been exploring this question for many years, beginning when our certified organic shade-grown cacao demonstration farm was planted in 2006. Since then we have worked diligently to provide educational opportunities and support for those interested in learning more about the benefits of shade-grown cacao. We have offered workshops and training programs for local farmers which have provided Belizeans with the tools necessary to grow sustainable and successful crops. BFREE along with students of UNC Wilmington have co-produced ‘The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook.‘  This handbook is a resource manual for anyone interested in growing cacao in Belize.

Due to its high value and its success as an understory crop, cacao is proven to be a great alternative to other forms of agriculture in the tropics which generally require clearing of tropical rainforests and heavy input of agrochemicals.  Therefore, we have been promoting shade-grown cacao as a method for restoring the forest canopy and to help improve the lives of local farmers by offering higher income and healthier working environments, while also maintaining and expanding rainforests, and providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Growing chocolate is a win-win; it’s good for the environment and can improve farmers’ livelihoods.

cacao agroforest

Pedro Rash and Elmer Tzalam manage BFREE’s cacao agroforest.

 

Cacao Pod photo credit: Graham Byers